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Helpful Information for Meeting Minimum Public Library Standards

Written Policies

Each ...library has board-approved written policies for the operation of the library, which shall be reviewed and updated at least once every five years or earlier if required by law.

Why Are Written Policies Necessary?

  • Policies provide a mechanism for library managers and staff to translate the library’s service priorities into actions.
  • Policies serve as the primary tool for ensuring that all staff has the information they need to do their jobs effectively.
  • Policies provide a way to ensure that all members of the public know what they can expect from the library and that they are treated equitably.
  • Policies provide support for the library staff and members of the library’s governing body in the event of legal action.
  • Policies contribute to the overall culture of an organization by instilling norms and values.
Helpful Tip: A policy that is written after an event has occurred may not be applied to that event. The new policy may help with future events or legal actions.

What Are the Four Tests for Legally Enforceable Policies?

Library policies are enforceable only if they are in writing and adopted formally by the library board in an open meeting. In addition, these policies will be valid only if they meet the four tests of legality, reasonableness, nondiscriminatory application, and measurability. Policies which do not meet these tests could be ruled invalid if challenged in court. Prior to adopting a new policy or when reviewing a current policy, a library board should ask the following questions to test the policy for legal enforceability:

  1. Does the Policy Comply with Current Statutes? The library board should review the policy to determine whether any provisions would be illegal under state or federal law. For example, a library policy of “no animals or pets allowed” must provide an exception for service dogs and other support animals. It is illegal for a library to refuse entry to people accompanied by licensed support animals.
  2. Is the Policy Reasonable (including reasonable penalties)? Some policies, although not illegal per se, could still be ruled invalid because they are unreasonable. For example, state laws usually authorize the library’s governing board to adopt rules for resident’s access to the library, which includes setting hours the library is open to the public. Let’s say a library board decides to set the library’s hours as “10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday.” Although it would not be illegal to set such hours, a court could find the policy to be unreasonable because in effect it denies library access to people who work or go to school during the day.
    The library board should also examine proposed policies to determine if any penalties are unreasonable. For example, it would be reasonable for a “no skateboarding in the library” policy to include a “penalty” that violators would be asked to leave for the rest of the day. It would not be reasonable to penalize the skateboarders by banning them from the library “for the rest of their lives.”
  3. Could There Be Discriminatory Application of the Policy? In order to be legally enforceable, library policies must be applied fairly. Courts will invalidate library policies which are not applied equally and are used to discriminate against certain groups of people. An example of discriminatory application of policy is that a “no sleeping” policy might be enforced against people who are homeless, but not against others (such as the mayor or even a library board member) who drift off while reading in a comfy chair. Another example is that some libraries might have “no noise” policies which they enforce only against tables of giggling adolescents, but never against tables of loud-speaking adults.
  4. Is the Policy Measurable? It is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce a policy fairly if the policy and penalty are not quantifiable. Policies should be written clearly so that library board members, library staff, and library users can read a library policy and know what constitutes a “violation” of the policy. For example, if a library has a policy which states that people will lose borrowing privileges if they have “too many overdue books for too long,” the definitions of “too many” and “too long” are not clear and may result in unfair application when interpreted by different staff members. On the other hand, a quantifiable policy states that people will lose borrowing privileges if they have “library material which has been overdue for three weeks or longer and if the individual has not returned the material or paid the replacement cost or made arrangements with the library for payment.” The policy also provides that the penalty, “loss of borrowing privileges,” will continue until the material is returned and/or paid for.

When reviewing and rewriting existing policies, library boards should also ask themselves whether there is still a viable reason to have the policy in the first place. Some boards have eliminated long-standing policies which have outlived their original usefulness to the public library and have opted instead for a more positive image for the library in the community. These include policies such as overdue fines, rental fees, and restrictions of the number of materials borrowed at one time.

How Are Policies Developed?

In general, policies should be clear and concise, legal, and fair. The library board is responsible for creating such policies, reviewing and revising them, and ultimately enforcing them with the assistance of the library director and staff. While trustees alone have the legal authority to make policy, the process works best when the library director and other key staff are closely involved. The staff has an important role in researching options, drafting recommendations, and presenting them to the board for discussion and approval.

Helpful Tip: It's a good idea to start with a sample and then adapt it to the library's specific needs. Contact the library system for sample policies.

The Board can appoint an ad hoc committee made of some board members, the director, and a staff member or two to work on policies. In some libraries the director develops the policies and the board reviews and approves them. It is important that the director and staff have input since they are familiar with the day-to-day operations of the library.

What Policies Should a Library Have?

All policies should include a process by which the board can respond to public comments or complaints.  Policies are, in effect, the rules of the library and should not be confused with procedures, which are an administrative function and describe how things are done.

It is a good idea to categorize the library’s policies into internal (such as personnel, business continuity, financial controls, etc.) and external (dealing with the public).  These areas can be further broken down to suit the library’s particular organizational structure.

All policies should be able to stand alone, and each policy should be dated with the original adoption and review and/or revision dates. The board’s policies should be recorded, compiled, and organized for ready access in a policy manual. The director and every trustee should have a copy of the policy manual and must be familiar with its contents. A thorough understanding of the library's policies is the foundation from which to adopt new policies, revise old ones, and interpret or defend the library’s rules.

The State Library requires the following policies be adopted by all association and public Libraries at the time of registration:

  • Open Meeting Policy: All public and association libraries are subject to open meetings law (Education Law, §260-a).
  • Confidentiality of Library Records: All public and association libraries are required to keep library records confidential according to Civil Practice Laws and Rules, §4509.
  • Conflict of Interest Policy: All public and association libraries are subject to Not-for-Profit Corporation Law, §715-a.
  • Whistle Blower Policy: All public and association libraries with twenty or more employees AND an annual revenue in excess of one million dollars in the previous fiscal year are subject to Not-for-Profit Law, §715-b.  (Note that this is required only for certain libraries.)
  • Disaster Response Policy: A board-approved disaster response policy in the event of a natural or man-made disaster that affects the library facilities, holdings, or staff and library users.
  • Collection Development Policy
  • Meeting Space Policy (exception: if the library does not have a meeting room)
  • Internet Use Policy
  • Code of Ethics
  • Personnel Policy
  • Financial Controls: Purchasing/Procurement Policy and Petty Cash Policy.

Helpful TipFind a recommended list of policies here.

Should Policies Be Made Available to the Community?

Yes. Current, board-approved policies are required to be publicly available online (See Standard 11: Provides access to current library information) and the library should also have printed copies available for public distribution. Online and printed policies provide the community with transparency and accountability about library operations.

Where Can the Library Go for Help?

Contact the library system for samples of policies and assistance with reviewing the policies.

See the chapter on Policies in the Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State for further information and resources.

Helpful Tip: Library Boards are advised to review library policies on a regular basis. It takes time to update a policy. New trustees should be given a copy of all library policies.